Every time the day of the ExitEvent Startup Social rolls around, from the moment I get up in the morning until the first few people arrive at the Social location just before 6:00 p.m. that day, I am convinced that this is going to be the one where no one shows up.
I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s because I’m not an event planner, and I don’t know the sorcery of Event Planning. Maybe it’s because my wife put together the most amazing wedding I’ve ever been to and, just like the sage advice I was given, I just had to show up.
Or maybe it’s because of those (admittedly rare) times when I hear enough noise about a startup or business related event and I get in my car and drive there to find maybe three cars outside or, worse, I get zero pre-entrance indication of the turnout and I wind up being the third and last person to show up.
Awkward staring is my next-to-least favorite activity. It’s below root canal and just ahead of spontaneous combustion.
Last Tuesday’s most-recent Startup Social was that fear squared. It was the first ever Social at the extremely incredible Mystery Brewing Public House. For those unaware, I’ve known Mystery founder Erik Myers for 12 years, and for two of those, he’s been gracious enough to donate a couple of kegs of his amazing seasonal craft brew to the Social.
But because there was now an ENDLESS supply of beer at this particular Social, it would not have been a good idea to just let the taps flow unchecked. That’s how bad things happen.
So this wound up being the first Social in which the beer wasn’t free. In a fit of creative problem-solving, we did some free beer via tokens we gave to the first 50% of people who RSVPd. This did two things for the RSVP process:
1) It got people to RSVP early in order to be in the top 50%.
2) It got people to get other people to RSVP so that the 50% would ultimately be a longer list.
It did not, however, assure that anyone would actually show up.
And those who didn’t make the cut were going to have to fork over (an admittedly tiny) $4 for pints. So that theory — “The Social is more than free beer” — was about to be put to the test.
But the real issue wasn’t even the beer issue, it was the location issue. Mystery Brewing’s brewery and pub are both tucked away in beautiful, quiet, Hillsborough, a 20-30 minute drive from Durham and probably 45 minutes from Raleigh.
For each of the 18 previous Socials, minus the one at Aaron Houghton’s house, we’ve been smack in the middle of a downtown, within walking distance of a ton of startups, and definitely a quick drive from the rest of them. Even the cross-pollenation of Raleigh to Durham and vice-versa isn’t an issue, as we get about 20-25% of people from out of town.
Hell, we’ve had people drive to Socials from Charlotte (3 hours) and Wilmington (2.5), but it’s not like they convoyed. Those people were just plain crazy. Crazy like an entrepreneur, sure (and I love them), but crazy.
Was I really going to get 80 people to brave rush hour traffic to get out to the country (it’s the country), to pay regular price for beer on a Tuesday night with no band, no speakers, no food, no prizes, no nothing, just the bonds of entrepreneurship to attract them?
This is exactly what I was thinking when I showed up at 5:45 and there was one other person in the entire pub. Now, I’m spoiled by the fact that people usually show up to the Social early (I do not recommend this, unless you want to hear about my day), but I thought “Yeah. This is the one. Well, at least Erik and I can have a few beers and catch up.”
By 6:05 the pub was almost full.
Which is cool, because they have an awesome patio with shade that we could spill out onto.
Which we did around 6:30.
I learned two things.
1) It really isn’t about the beer. At least as a draw. Entrepreneurs really do want to meet with and chat with and problem solve with and laugh with other entrepreneurs. They also like to drink with other entrepreneurs, which of course means we’ll keep doing free beer. But it isn’t what gets them there. It’s the conversation, free of outside influence.
So I’ll also continue to take the “elitist” heat for keeping the Social entrepreneur and investor only.
2) Entrepreneurs will take “new and cool” over “easy” every time. Even though Mystery Brewing Public House was hard to get to, so is running your own successful company.
In essence, the new venue and long drive was probably more of a draw than a deterrent.
So once again, even with my predisposed OCD-type worrying about the collapse of this very cool thing we’ve all been doing for the last two years, the Social proved me wrong once again.
There is something to this startup community we have growing here. And, best of all, it’s being fueled by the entrepreneurs themselves. We don’t need bells, whistles, magic ideas, or miracles. We just need better ways to build and run our businesses.
And if 80 entrepreneurs took a few steps in that direction last week, all that worry paid off.